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Were Israelis Banned From Komen’s Egyptian Cancer Meeting?

When the international advocacy and fundraising organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure called two Israeli advocates to invite them to a breast cancer conference in Egypt, “we were very excited about it,” one of the women said. “This is a level we never dreamed of, breaking political barriers. This collaborative effort with Middle East women dealing with the same issues we are. This holds us together, this universal experience.”

That all changed when, at the 11th hour, they received a call saying they had been disinvited. A representative from Komen had received word that Egypt’s minister of health, Hatem el-Gabali, would bar their entrance into the country. “You’re extending a hand, and when the door gets slammed on that, it really feels terrible,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified for what she called security concerns.

The women’s exclusion set off a firestorm of protest in the Israeli media, on Zionist blogs and in e-mails furiously forwarded around the globe. Now the organization and the Egyptian government both say that the women were never barred in the first place and chalk it all up to a misunderstanding. “The reports that they were banned were all exaggerated,” said Emily Callahan, Komen’s vice president of marketing.

It has left veteran watchers of the “cold peace” between Israel and Egypt frankly baffled. “I haven’t heard of a case like this in many years,” said Daniel Kurtzer, chair of Middle East policy studies at The Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, who has served as the U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. Usually, “either the Israelis are not invited, or they are invited and there’s no problem. There is something about this story that’s very odd.”

The conference, held from October 21 to October 27, was actually a series of loosely related events: a training session in Alexandria on how to organize and run breast cancer support groups; a scientific meeting in Cairo on breast disease, sponsored by the University of Florida, and a Race for the Cure” at the Giza Pyramids. The events were held under the auspices of Egypt’s first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, and supported by the Egyptian Ministry of Health and the United States Agency for International Development in Egypt. Thirty advocates, from Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, were set to attend the training.

Nancy Brinker founded the not-for-profit Susan B. Komen for the Cure in 1982, after the death of her sister, for whom the organization is named. The group has raised and distributed more than $1.5 billion for scientific research and patient support and advocacy — including more than $2 million for efforts in Israel.

The women were invited as representatives of Life’s Door/Tishkofet, a Jerusalem-based organization that provides services to people with life-threatening illness and to their families. They applied in advance to the Egyptian government for travel visas and were approved for entry, and were set to leave on Monday, October 19. They had used their American and Canadian passports, but “Komen was very clear that we were coming from Israel,” the woman said. “It wasn’t a secret.”

Sometime over the previous weekend, however, “there were indications given to us that the Israelis would not be allowed to attend,” Callahan said. “We had to call them and say, look, it looks like you were disinvited to come.”

The day the women were due to leave, Israeli television news reported that their invitation had been rescinded by order of el-Gabali. Komen was inundated with more than 1,000 e-mails and phone calls. The organization issued a noncommittal reply stating its intention to continue with the events as planned, and not get involved with what it perceived as a political issue. “Susan G. Komen for the Cure had invited these professionals to be a part of the events… months earlier. We had no knowledge that they would be told by the government, just before the events, not to attend. These actions were not within the control of Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” the e-mail read.

The next day, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League released a statement calling the exclusion of the Israeli women “shocking and contrary to the stated purpose of these programs.”

Komen then launched what a press release called “a diplomatic effort to ensure [the women] would be able to participate.” Finally, on Wednesday, October 21, the Israelis got a call from Komen stating ‘“we’re all set, you can come.’ It was a little late, obviously; the whole thing was practically over.” They were also concerned that no one had explained who had rescinded the original invitation. “Because we didn’t know where the initial information was coming from, we didn’t feel we were getting the kind of assurances we needed, that yes, you can be assured of your safety. Somebody did not want us there, for sure,” the woman who was called said.

The official word from Komen now is that the whole thing was simply a misunderstanding. The message that women were going to be denied entry into Egypt was communicated, Callahan said, “between low-level people in the government and lower-level people on our staff. It had to take our senior-level people talking to senior-level people in Cairo to make sure we had our side and their side operating on correct information.”

Egyptian officials echo Komen. A statement issued by the Egyptian Embassy in Washington said, “The Israeli doctors in question had not been denied visas for entry into Egypt, and were in no way barred from participating in any of the activities of this event. Any reports to the contrary are inaccurate.” Karim Haggag, a spokesman for the embassy, said that el-Gabali had been involved in planning the event, and that he knew for months that the Israelis were to attend. “It did not happen. You’re asking me to comment on reports that we have denied,” Haggag told the Forward.

The Israeli advocates and others, however, are skeptical. “It’s a very clear no, and suddenly it’s a misunderstanding? Nobody really explained that well enough,” said the woman who was initially invited.

“There may have been a misunderstanding, but whether it was a low-level bureaucrat or whether it came from the highest levels of the Egyptian government, that doesn’t affect what happened,” said Michael Salberg, the ADL’s director of international affairs. “The participants from Israel were asked not to come.”

After the conference in Egypt, Brinker and Hadassah Lieberman, wife of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman and a Global Ambassador for Komen, traveled to Israel to visit Life’s Door/Tishkofet and meet with others involved in breast cancer research and advocacy work. This trip had been planned long before any of the controversy arose in Egypt.

Nevertheless, many Jewish women and breast cancer activists feel betrayed by Komen. In a post called “People Hate Jews Even More Than They Hate Cancer,” an Israeli blogger named Rivka wrote, “Nancy Brinker… denied that Israelis were barred from the Cairo conference…. Rather than criticizing the Egyptian boycott, Susan G. Komen for the Cure lied to the public…. To my utter disappointment, I can no longer support any activities sponsored by Susan G. Komen for the Cure.”

The Israeli advocate says that Komen certainly could have done more, sooner, to stand up for Israel, but the real anger should be directed at the Egyptian government. “These people are extending their hand,” she said of Komen, pointing to the Komen delegation’s trip to Israel. “There are tremendous opportunities to collaborate, and we would be shortsighted to give that up.”

Contact Beth Schwartzapfel at [email protected]

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